A totalitarian regime’s enemy number 1: Human Science

As Iranian civil society reels from the impact of illegitimate elections, the Chronicle of Higher Education noticed a fascinating, if disturbing, trend:  a disproportionate number of dissidents put on public trial have been students of the human sciences … and they have been forced to denounce their field.

“The number of social scientists in Iranian prisons has multiplied,” the Chronicle says (where the Iranians use the European term “Human Sciences,” the Chronicle prefers the Americanized – and more limited – “Social Sciences”).  Meanwhile, members of the regime’s senior leadership, including the “supreme ruler” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have publicly called for human science to be discussed only among trained elites … or not taught at all … lest ordinary people be encouraged to doubt the legitimacy of the theocratic government. 

The Chronicle quotes from the forced confession of Saeed Hajjarian, a leading advocate for reform and a political scientist by training:  “Theories of the human sciences contain ideological weapons that can be converted into strategies and tactics and mustered against the country’s official ideology.”

At Saybrook University, the only university in America to offer graduate degrees in Human Science, the response has been “absolutely right.”

“This isn’t just about a specialized scholarly field,” says Joel Federman, a member of Saybrook’s Human Science faculty who heads its interdisciplinary concentration in Social Transformation.  “The Iranian government is speaking about the broader Western tradition of social sciences and humanities, in which there is a value placed on considering and comparing alternative worldviews and theories of culture and society.” 

And, says Federman, “Whenever you give someone an opportunity to critically consider alternative models of social and cultural systems, including governing systems, you run the risk that they might choose one that is different from yours.  Authoritarian regimes don’t, by their nature, like to run that risk.”

That makes many forms of western culture and scholarship suspect – and guilty, in the eyes of the regime.  But according to the Chronicle, Iran’s show trials make a particular point of demonizing many of the western scholars – dead and alive – who are most associated with human science:  Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, and Richard Rorty … along with “feminists” and “poststructuralists” generally … have all been accused of fostering dissent against the regime. 

JoAnn McAllister, who chairs Saybrook’s Human Science program, thinks that this is because human science doesn’t just ask “what is true,” but stakes out an even more complicated relationship with truth, asking ‘by what criteria do we know something is true?’

Not only is there no central monopoly on truth, human science tells us, but there cannot be:  the subjective experiences of individual people can not simply be written off as “incorrect thinking.” 

The moment you start looking at truth in this way, the justification for a totalitarian regime goes out the window.

“When we begin to inquire about the nature of ‘truth claims’ this way, then we are automatically questioning authoritarian dictates about what we believe,” she says.  “Whether those pronouncements are religious, social, cultural, or political, a human science perspective demands of the inquirer to explore the context and the method of investigation and the sources of evidence employed by those who purport to have absolute answers to any aspect of the human condition.”

To the Iranian regime, as to totalitarian societies everywhere, this is unacceptable, and the result is a coordinated campaign against universities and human science students.

It probably won’t work.  However much the regime cracks down, the demand for human science in Iran keeps growing.  In 1976 there were about 27,000 such students in Iran:  today there are over half a million.

It suggests that the old adage “the truth shall set you free” should be updated:  knowing how to question the truth can be just as liberating.

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